By Maggie Ercolani | I didn’t even know what a stroke was when it happened.
Well, I vaguely did. I’d heard about them when conversation turned to nursing homes, and on those medical dramas that run a dime a dozen on TNT. I remember watching an episode featuring an acronym you’re supposed to memorize. What was it now? Face, Speech … Arm? Oh well. I didn’t remember that acronym on the Big Day, and even if I had, I doubt I would have believed it was actually happening to me.
I figured I was having a panic attack, like any self-diagnosis-prone psychology major would. But fate had a heftier embarrassment in mind. What else could explain its timing—inviting a blood clot into the artery leading to my left thalamus the exact moment I stepped foot into Macy’s in Herald Square, on the first day of my internship last summer?
A few minutes earlier I’d been waiting outside the building for my friend, watching the rush of furrowed brows and briefcases, thinking, “I cannot believe I am working in New York City.” The morning had already felt surreal, as I rode the subway in my first set of business clothes that would have to last longer than just an interview.
Little did I know that they would be shimmied off in an ambulance before my first day even started.
My friend and I walked up the stairs to the Macy’s employee entrance, jittering with first-day excitement, when blackness seeped into the periphery of my vision. Cotton plugged my ears and I heard my blood rushing like white noise. My friend hustled me to a seat. A security guard called 911. An HR contingent arrived, and one of them sat next to me. I couldn’t see half of his face. Then I realized I couldn’t move my right arm.
“I’m so sorry,” I said to him. “This never happens to me …. I’m so, so sorry.”
I thought: God, why am I such a freaking idiot?! Now Macy’s will mark me down as an unstable wreck, passing out from nervousness, having some sort of dumb panic attack.
But then there was the fact of my arm, numb and immobile.
Fact or no fact, my overriding feeling was still embarrassment over causing such a scene. If that was fate’s sense of humor, though, I was going to run with it.
That must be why I kept on laughing every time I had to tell the nurses why I was in the stroke ward—or correct the elderly patients at the rehabilitation center when they would gently prod, “So, what kind of car accident were you in, dear?” Why not smile? This was a fluke. It was going to be in my rearview mirror in no time, handy for when I needed a funny anecdote at a social function.
At first I couldn’t understand why my mother cried when she saw me clumsily try to grasp a spoon. Or why the tears continued to well even when I managed to coordinate my fingers around the handle—only to smear food all over my face. This isn’t a big deal, I thought. I’ll get better.
Perhaps I laughed simply because I couldn’t process the possibility of being paralyzed. Healing was the only option, as Lifetime-movie trite as that sounds. So even as I lay in the emergency room on day one, unable to feel or move anything on the right side of my body, I held my chin up, trying to look pleasant for all the nurses and worried onlookers.
It was only when my right side started feeling like a stranger that I started to panic a little bit. Because in fact I knew something about neural incapacitation. When I was in high school, my father fell off his bicycle and suffered a traumatic brain injury.
For a horrible few weeks it turned him into a six-foot-one-inch 7-year-old. He spoke like a child. His memory was scrambled. Fits of rudeness and anger commandeered his personality. When my mother brought my brother and sister and me to visit him, he could barely say our names. I could hardly bring myself to visit his bedside, where my mother sunk into perpetual weariness next to a man who scarcely resembled my real father.
And now I was in the exact same rehab hospital.
Each day that first week, my health came back to me in large, hungry gulps. On the second day I started to move the right side of my body. On the third or fourth, I awoke with the realization that the metal bar on the side of the bed was cool, the brown tabletop also cool, my mother’s hand warm. Registering temperature had never made me feel so blissful. Soon I began to hobble about the corridors, my progress tangible, and uplifting. I cherished sleep, for it only brought more movement and feeling.
How vulnerable we all are to our own health, to these carefully balanced flesh cages. I had moved through life in a constant state of tense worry—about the next mid-term, the next job, the next hurdle to greatness. But those anxieties seemed ridiculous when my penmanship suddenly resembled that of a first-grader and I needed my mother to help me take a shower. What, at the end of the day, was really important?
Only two things.
My family and friends painted those hospital walls a vibrant rainbow; I drank their love like coffee. Each day, my parents drove from Connecticut just to sit next to my bed and read the newspaper for six hours, and then drive back. They sacrificed their days just to be in my stuffy hospital room, to play iPad games with me, to bring me homemade meals. To rinse the shampoo out of my hair.
They cannot have dreaded those visits any less than I had dreaded watching my father struggle to regain himself.
In the rehab hospital, my dad, that man of few words, astonished me with a wealth of physical- and speech-therapy suggestions. He researched hand-eye coordination. He found balls and small objects for me to practice with. Now I was the one who had a hard time finding words, at least ones sufficient to express my gratitude. I had never really grasped what he had gone through. I did now.
He and I shared laughs—of course laughs—about the cognitive tests I was now the one suffering through, and the food. And behind that laughter, I quietly realized my father and my mother are much stronger than I had suspected.
And so was my attitude, if I’m allowed to say so, and that was the other important thing. My giggles and hopefulness aroused looks of benign wonder from the nurses and therapists, who sometimes seemed like they expected me to be mourning the death of my right side. But as another patient said to me one day while we did our physical therapy together: “Well, there’s nothing I can do about it. Might as well have a smile and a good laugh, be supportive of everyone around me.”
One day he had fallen over a banister, and woke up in a hospital bed a few weeks later, semi-paralyzed.
Back at school now, when I do poorly on that exam, or scrape by on four hours of sleep, or the guy at Starbucks gives me a grande mocha with whip instead of a grande caramel without—I think of his bright eyes, tell myself to can my complaints, and dial up my new mental hashtag: #healthypeopleproblems.
At least I can hold a cup.
It’s good to bear that in mind, because those first few weeks of rampant progress have now slowed to a halt. Thankfully, I am fully functional. But I’m still working on adopting this persistent tingling and dulled numbness into my conception of myself. What seemed like it was going to be henna, now feels like a real tattoo.
That unnerves me, I’ll admit. I’m a little less casual than I was in the stroke ward, laughing it off with self-confident assurance that everything would be back to normal in a few months. The truth is that I will probably never again wake up without tingling, never be able to stick my hand in my purse and simply feel what I’m looking for, never be able to feel the pattern of stubble and smoothness of my boyfriend’s cheek. Just like my father isn’t likely to regain his sense of smell, even though he has won back almost everything else.
But, this is the new Maggie, I tell myself. I chuckle a little harder when you tickle me on my right side, and my right slipper falls off easily because I can’t sense the floor with my foot. I hope my left hand can handle things on the fruit-selection front, so that I can avoid rock solid pears and mushy apples.
But what has been taken away from me concretely, I have regained in other ways. I feel the texture of my life more acutely, and find that the troughs are needed to give the peaks their prominence. It is strange. Here I am, half-numb, but feeling with newfound clarity.
Maggie Ercolani is a senior in the College.